by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13, 31-35
The two readings from the Book of Revelation offered to us for reflection, last Sunday and this coming one, are an invitation to ponder the fullness of life awaiting us when we die. However, very few of us seem to look forward eagerly to that life which is promised to us. I suspect that’s because we have come to love the joys and satisfactions with which God has blessed us in the creation that surrounds us and in the love we experience in the relationships we have grown into with family and friends. In our better moments, despite interpersonal breakdowns and disappointments, we appreciate that all the good we experience in relationship with one another and with the created world around us is evidence of the immense love God has for us.
Deep down, we know that we are made for love. We believe that we were loved into life by parents whose love for one another, however inadequate, was a reflection of God’s love for us working in and through them. We are aware that it was our mother who probably taught us more about love than anyone else. There were no instructions. Our mothers taught us all about love by being love in action for us. Their love was contagious. In time, we somehow came to realise that God, too, loves us. If we want evidence of that we need only to list the names of the ten or so people whom we regard as having been the most significant influences on our lives. Moreover, we’ve all been around long enough to know that, at some time or another, we all fall in love with somebody, and that we cannot predict who that somebody will be. We know, too, that, if we haven’t been loved, we would by now be dead and buried. So, from one perspective, it is a little surprising to hear Jesus saying: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” After all, loving is not something about which we feel we need directives. Or maybe it is, especially when we encounter people who have little appeal to us.
What then lies behind this directive to us from Jesus: “As I have loved you, so you must/should love one another!”? And why does he describe it as a new commandment?
In order to answer these questions, I suggest a brief theological/scriptural excursion into the meaning of the Lenten period we completed just a few weeks ago. Lent was instituted as a period of preparation for baptism, and concentrated on helping people to understand the covenant relationship God initiated with humankind and sealed in baptism. In making that covenant or agreement with humanity, God reached out to us saying I have loved you into life and created you in my image. I love you and you are mine. God sealed that covenant in the person of Jesus, who lived in our flesh and blood and died on the Cross out of love for us. God’s covenant with us has the shape of an ongoing relationship with us that was formally initiated at our baptism. It has been made with us for the sake of our getting to know who God really is, for bringing us closer to God.
Worthy of note is the fact that one of the readings for the First Sunday of Lent (Cycle B) is the story of the covenant God made with Noah, a covenant which was sealed with the rainbow. Many ancient cultures fashioned flood stories and myths as a way of trying to deal with the fears they created in themselves because of the violence to which they resorted as a way of dealing with human conflict and disagreement. The ancient Mesopotamians, Incas, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and many others fashioned stories of their gods using the destructive violence of floods to wipe out humans’ violence to one other and provide opportunity for a fresh start. Human beings had come to recognise that the violence to which they resorted would eventually be an instrument for wiping themselves out. The violence they repeatedly adopted was like a contagion. The story in Genesis of Noah, the ark and the flood has mythic qualities similar to flood stories in other cultures. The Genesis flood story tells of a God who used a flood as a projection of the age-old human answer to violence: resorting to more and greater violence to wipe out existing violence. The rainbow that appears at the end of the flood story in Genesis is a symbol of the peace that God holds out to humanity. The God who put the rainbow promise of peace in the sky is the God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ. Any god who uses the violence of a flood to wipe out people is a false god, a god created by human cultures to wipe out violence with violence. True, Jesus, in his death on the Cross was a victim of human violence, but God’s response in raising Jesus from the grave demonstrated the impotence of human violence in comparison with God’s life-giving power of love and forgiveness.
When we renewed our baptismal vows at the Easter-Vigil, we identified ourselves with Jesus Christ in death but also in the belief that we, too, will be raised to unending life, the kind of which we cannot even imagine. But let’s not overlook the fact that God’s creative energy is still at work in us and our world. We continue to be formed and shaped and remade as individuals and as a species through God’s faithful and loving relationship with us over time and space. In his teaching, Jesus revealed to us a God who is faithful, loving and totally opposed to violence. Moreover, he told us that we are our best selves when we love as he does, with the kind of love he learned from God.
As we try to live as sisters and brothers to one another in the Christian community we call Church and in the world that is beyond Church, we encounter people with whom we disagree, people to whom we are certainly not attracted. But that’s what God’s covenant with humanity is all about. God, and the Jesus who revealed God to us, reach out to people who are not likeable, to people who, like us, are fragile, weak and sinful. It is only because God embraces imperfect human beings that any of us has a chance to be included in God’s covenant.
Despite all this, we live in a world in which violence proliferates. While God’s creative energy is still at work in our world, we and our world are seemingly unable to let go of wanting to get even with those who hurt us, unable to stop fighting violence with more violence. We can’t stop wanting God’s creative transformation to work at our pace rather than at God’s pace. Jesus called his commandment to love new simply because loving one another, even enemies, was not a priority for the people of his era, and has not been for our world over the last two thousand years. The way of non-violence, of compassion, reconciliation, forgiveness and love is new, simply because we have been unable to embrace it. At a time when world leaders have at their disposal technology and weaponry sufficiently powerful to obliterate us all, the need to imitate the love of Christ is more urgent than ever. Accepting Jesus’ new commandment will come at a price, and will certainly be countercultural.